It had been more than 14 hours since the fire that gutted Olson Tire in Grovetown first began, but Larry Lewis was still there.
His wife, Valerie, just weeks away from delivering their baby girl, was by his side as they looked across the yellow police tape into the gutted building.
"This is my home away from home," said Mr. Lewis, the shop's head technician and one of seven employees displaced by the fire. "This is depressing."
But they considered themselves lucky. His tools - his livelihood - had been saved in the nick of time, just before the side of the building was torn down to contain the fire that began in the tire storage area at about 9 p.m. Thursday.
On Friday morning, investigators with the Grovetown Department of Public Safety continued to piece together what caused the blaze at Olson Tire Total Car Care at 5106 Wrightsboro Road.
"They've got to get in there among all the metal," said Grovetown Fire Department Sgt. Wayne Kent.
One employee told authorities the store had trouble with the furnace earlier Thursday, but whether that caused the fire was not known.
"I don't have a clue as to what started the fire," said Carl Messmer, Olson's division manager for the 14 stores in the Athens-Augusta area. "It appears to have started in the tire storage area. But due to the way they had to put the fire out, we'll probably never know. We had to contain the runoff by knocking the building down and putting sand on the tires, as opposed to using water and foam."
Besides claiming the building and its inventory, the fire destroyed a car and damaged two others.
Mr. Messmer said the store's seven employees were given the day off with pay Friday and would be reassigned to Olson's other eight Augusta-area stores.
"We're putting them in other stores starting (today)," said Mr. Messmer, who transferred to the Augusta-Athens division a week ago from Orlando, Fla. "No employee will go a minute without pay. Our No. 1 concern was that no one was hurt. Our second concern was the environment and our third concern was our employees. Buildings and tires are replaceable."
Workers from C&B/Fosters/ Inc. were on the scene Friday morning - as they had been the night before - using heavy equipment to contain and clean up any dangerous materials.
The state Environmental Protection Division's Emergency Response Team was on the scene shortly after the fire began and was there Friday morning to assess the scene. Its primary concern was any hazardous chemicals that could seep into waterways from the runoff of water used to fight the fire and from the chemicals emitted into the air during the fire.
"After the fire, we're looking at where the runoff went and what impact it might have," said Gary Andrews, an environmental emergency specialist. "It was very minimal. The runoff from this type of fire wasn't significant. They did a real good job containing it, and what did go off site in the ditch, they did a good job containing that as well."
About 80 firefighters from the Grovetown Department of Public Safety, the Martinez Fire Department and the Fort Gordon Fire Department battled the blaze Thursday night and into Friday morning, wrapping things up between 3 and 4 a.m.
Larry Putt of Evans, the owner of the 8,000-square-foot building, estimated the damage to be nearly $500,000. He said he intends to rebuild once the cleanup is completed.
"They're anxious to get back in business, from what I understand," Mr. Putt said. He said he still had not talked directly with corporate officials.
Reach Melissa Hall at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 113.